As spring returns to campus, UW-Madison has another reason to look forward to sunny weather. Following a year of research, project development, partnership building, and coordination, the Gordon Dining & Event Center now features a solar array on its roof that is projected to produce 42,800 kWh of electricity a year, or the energy use of five typical Wisconsin homes.1 All electricity produced by the panels will directly power the building.
The solar array, which was constructed by Madison-based company SunPeak, will provide University Housing with approximately $1,340 net annual income from renewable electricity production, resulting in at least $35,600 net income over the 30-year life of the system.2 Thanks to an online dashboard, the public can view comparative metrics and data—such as barrels of oil saved, or equivalent miles driven in an electric car—to understand the environmental impact of the solar array in real time.
The project relied on collaboration throughout its development, from the earliest stages of research through physical installation and interconnection with Madison Gas and Electric. During the spring semester of 2018, a group of Office of Sustainability staff members and interns, as well as leaders of the student organization Helios and the ASM Sustainability Committee, took a three-month course called Photovoltaic (PV) Development for Institutions offered by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA). The Office of Sustainability and University Housing worked closely with Helios—which is a student organization that aims to promote renewable energy on campus—to determine the feasibility of installing solar on the Gordon roof.
Helios students Zach Galvin, Jessie Steckling, and Sahil Verma then applied for a Green Fund grant from the Office of Sustainability to fund the solar array. UW-Madison also received a rebate from Focus on Energy to support the project. “Zach, Sahil, and Jessie translated an idea into a reality through their hard work, persistence, skill, and ability to collaborate with staff from all across the university and beyond,” shared Ian Aley, Green Fund Program Manager. “I feel grateful to get to work with such amazing students!”
University Housing, already a sustainability leader on campus, saw an ideal opportunity to expand its green infrastructure. Mike Henry, Assistant Director of Residence Hall Facilities, provided guidance during the project development process. Sustainability Coordinator Breana Nehls facilitated conversations among the many project partners. Meanwhile, Mark Mueller, who is maintenance and grounds supervisor for Gordon Dining & Event Center, was instrumental in bringing the solar array to fruition. “I like challenges no matter how hard they can be,” he noted. Mueller championed student engagement throughout the process, pointing to the importance of involving a student team in a large-scale sustainability project. “What better experience could they get?” Mueller said. “We have a big impact with students due to the amount that stay and eat in our facilities, and it’s important that we lead by example.”
Facilities Planning & Management (FP&M) also played a key role in the installation of the solar array. David Darling, Associate Vice Chancellor for FP&M, reviewed and approved the project before turning over supervision to Stu Larose. Larose, who is a Project Manager at Facility Planning & Delivery, was a central figure in shepherding the project through university processes. “From my perspective, the most impressive aspect of this project has been the broad collaboration,” commented Missy Nergard, Director of Sustainability. “It is an example of what can happen when we leverage the passion and innovation of our students and the expertise and knowledge of our faculty, staff, and community.”
Helios saw the opportunity to showcase renewable electricity so that other students could understand its potential in their everyday lives. “I think the most impactful part of the project will be the educational aspect,” suggested Helios co-founder Zach Galvin. “A lot of students on campus think solar is a good idea, but far fewer think it’s actually practical. When students are looking at the panels—which will be visible from the finished Nick—or when they are looking at the solar dashboard, I think it will start to change people’s minds about solar.”
Helios continues to pursue opportunities to engage and educate fellow students about renewable energy. For instance, they produced a video that explains the difference between fixed and variable energy costs for UW-Madison—a key piece of information to understand the rate structure that governs the university’s contract with Madison Gas and Electric. In addition, Helios is working with University Housing to upgrade dining and residence halls to energy-efficient LED lighting.
In the meantime, the new solar array on the top of Gordon Dining & Event Center will continue its quiet and essential work: absorbing the sun’s rays and helping UW-Madison on its ongoing journey to a more sustainable campus.
- For Wisconsin home average energy use, see: https://www.electricchoice.com/blog/electricity-on-average-do-homes/. Based on SunPeak’s estimate that the solar array will produce 42,800 kWh/ year, the following calculation results: 42,800 kWh a year / 8,436 kWh per year per home = 5.07 homes.
- These figures were calculated based on labor and parts costs per year to maintain the solar array, University Housing’s approximate electricity costs for the next 30 years, and the average electricity production from the solar array.
By: Nathan Jandl